What's in a Name? 'Jihad' vs. 'Hiraba'

What's in a name? When it comes to identifying what we are fighting against in the war for our civilization, quite a lot. Members of a movement among military and intellectual circles want to avoid asserting that we are fighting against "jihad" because that term is loaded with religious significance in Islam, replacing it with "hiraba", to highlight the criminal nature of Islamic terrorists:

Walid Phares, writing in American Thinker several weeks ago, challenged these advocates. As Phares noted in his article, Preventing the West from Understanding Jihad:
The good holy war is when the right religious and political authorities declare it against the correct enemy and at the right time. The bad jihad, called also Hiraba, is the wrong war, declared by bad (and irresponsible) people against the wrong enemy (for the moment), and without an appropriate authorization by the "real" Muslim leadership. According to this thesis, those Muslims who wage a Hiraba, a wrong war, are called Mufsidoon, from the Arabic word for "spoilers." The advocates of this ruse recommend that the United States and its allies stop calling the jihadists by that name and identifying the concept of Jihadism as the problem. In short, they argue that "jihad is good, but the Mufsidoon, the bad guys and the terrorists, spoiled the original legitimate sense."
The foremost advocate for this approach has been Jim Guirard of the Truespeak Institute, who has published a series of articles in recent years recommending this shift, citing a number of Muslim scholars in support. But a review of the scholars Guirard cites in support of his new lexicon finds that vast majority are American Muslims. There is no indication that this new linguistic initiative has any actual support from scholars in the Muslim world.

Additionally, as Pentagon Joint Staff analyst Stephen Coughlin recently observed in a unclassified memo (his analysis reprinted by Doug Farah) with reference to the "Truespeak" movement, many of these Muslim scholars cited by Guirard are affiliated with known Muslim Brotherhood front groups in the US -- groups that are advancing the very extremist views that Guirard intends this new lexicon to defeat.

And Coughlin is not the only military analyst to raise serious questions about the jihad-hiraba exchange. William McCants of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point notes several reasons why caution must be used with this approach.

But a more fundamental question has to be raised as to whether Guirard and others recommending this linguistic substitution have carefully read and understood the original sources upon which they have relied.

The earliest proponent of this new Islamic lexicon that I have been able to locate was University of Michigan professor Sherman Jackson, whose article "Domestic Terrorism in the Islamic Legal Tradition" (Muslim World 91, 3/4 [Fall 2001], pp. 293-310) advocates this new terminology of hiraba, rather than jihad. This article is based on a series of lectures Jackson delivered prior to the 9/11 attacks, so his argument is not colored by those events. Many of the articles on this topic published since 9/11 refer back to Jackson's 2001 treatment of the subject, and Guirard specifically cites Jackson in support of his "truespeak".

However, one problem immediately appears when trying to use this analysis: it is confined to "domestic terrorism". In his first endnote, he explains the difficulty from the viewpoint of Islamic law to apply the argument to international terrorism:
I limit my discussion in this paper to domestic terrorism because a discussion of international terrorism would take us into the complicated issue of extraterritoriality and the question of the applicability of Islamic law outside the lands of Islam, an issue on which the jurists differed widely. (p. 306)
Thus, while Jackson's new lexicon might apply to "sudden jihad syndrome" of Muslims living in the West committing spontaneous, limited and "leaderless" acts of terror, applying the label of hiraba to international terrorist activities becomes problematic from the perspective of Islamic jurisprudence. But since Guirard and others are trying to use this terminology with reference to international terror, it is worth hearing Jackson out to see how the exchange of hiraba for jihad is not supported by Islamic law itself.

Secondly, while Jackson states that hiraba fits nicely with the FBI's definition of terrorism, he then issues three qualifications that severely negate its use with reference to al-Qaeda, et al. (I have preserved his alternative spelling, "hirabah"):
Close examination of the classical Islamic law of hirabah, however, reveals that this law corresponds in its most salient features to domestic terrorism in the American legal system. This holds despite a number of important differences between hirabah and domestic terrorism. First, the importance of the political motivations of would-be terrorists appears to be inversely proportional in the two systems. Whereas the pursuit of political aims tends to heighten or perhaps establish the correspondence between publicly directed violence and terrorism in American law, in Islamic law it tends to have the opposite effect. In other words, to the extent that a group declares itself or is deemed by the government to be acting in pursuit of political objectives (and the assumption here is that these are grounded in some interpretation of religion), their activity is actually less likely to fall under the law of hirabah. Second, the importance attached to numbers appears to be inversely proportional in the two systems. Under Islamic law, the greater the number of individuals involved in a prima facie act of terrorism, the less likely to fall under the laws of hirabah. By comparison, according to FBI guidelines issued in 1983, a terrorism investigation may not even be initiated unless circumstances indicate that two or more persons are involved in an offense. Third, hirabah, at least in its fully developed form, appears to be potentially a much broader category than terrorism proper, covering as it does a spectrum of crimes ranging from breaking and entering to "hate crimes" to rape to terrorism proper. (pp. 293-294, emphasis added)
So, two paragraphs into Jackson's treatment of hiraba, and we face three seemingly insurmountable hurdles in applying the term to international terrorism on the basis of Islamic law:
  • 1) If a group has legitimate (in the eyes of Islam) political aims, such as al-Qaeda's call to reestablish to global Islamic caliphate or groups like the Muslim Brotherhood trying to overthrow secular Arab leaders to reinstitute shari'a or inflict a "civilization-jihadist process" to undermine the West for establishing Islamic governments, the use of hiraba for terrorism is not warranted;
  • 2) The more members a group has, such as al-Qaeda's international network of thousands of individuals or the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in more than 70 countries, the more legitimate their claims become and the application of hiraba for their actions does not hold;
  • 3) Hiraba is a malleable category in which Jackson is trying to make terrorism fit. But the scholarly interpretations that he relies upon nowhere seem to contemplate the equation of hiraba for terrorism in its contemporary understanding.
These first two points of qualification especially seem to eliminate the possibility of any use of hiraba instead of jihad or terrorism with reference to acts of terror by international organizations.

But further into Jackson's analysis we find that the use of hiraba with reference to even domestic terrorism becomes problematic:
There were essentially two major considerations on the basis of which an act of hirabah was to be distinguished from an act of baghy, or rebellion....

The first of these considerations was that the rebels be motivated by what jurists referred to as a ta'wil, or "a plausible interpretation" that might justify, at least in their minds, rebellion as a means of redress or of carrying out the Qur'anic imperative to command what is good and forbid what is evil. It does not matter if the interpretation is "wrong" or even heterodox; what matters is that it be plausible; that the language of the Qur'an and/or Sunna or the circumstantial and contextual indicators surrounding this language could accommodate such a reading. In fact, the focus of the rebels' interpretation might even be purely "political" as opposed to religious.... In sum, it is essentially the appearance or the rebels' insistence that their actions are based on their understanding of their duty as Muslims that confers upon these actions the status of "political speech." This sets them apart from criminal acts of hirabah.

The second stipulation was that the rebels be backed by a sufficient level of force (shawkah), measured mainly in numbers and military preparedness. The jurists differed on this number. The 7th/13th century al-Qarafi notes that a number of jurists placed it at ten.... This stipulation has the effect of reserving the more lenient law of rebellion for the most serious and widespread cases of public disaffection. That is to say, the gieivances that allegedly prompt a group to rebel must be serious and widespread enough to enlist the support of significant numbers of people. Otherwise, small groups of extremists, sophomoric idealists, prurient bandits or terrorists will be denied the refuge afforded by the law of rebellion and be treated under the more severe and salutary law of hirabah. (pp. 302-303, emphasis added)
So according to Jackson, domestic terrorist acts do not qualify as hiraba following two stipulations:
  • 1) If the rebels are acting under what they themselves understand to be a "reasonable" interpretation of Islamic law, such as those many fatwas issued by Islamic scholars throughout the Muslim world permitting attacks against the US;
  • 2) If they are well-coordinated and use sufficient force, such as ramming fuel-laden airliners into military headquarters, government offices or skyscrapers.
In such cases, the use of hiraba does not apply, but are instead legitimate acts of rebellion. This would certainly disqualify the use of hiraba to describe the Muslim Brotherhood's "civilization-jihadist process" for destroying the US from within that Pentagon analysis Stephen Coughlin identifies, since it is both well-planned, extensive, and is coordinated with its self-identified "security apparatus", i.e. military/terror component.

Jackson unwittingly tips us off to another problem with applying hiraba for terrorism, according to traditional Islamic law, with this statement:
Indeed, a number of early jurists had associated hirabah with the activities of groups who had formally apostatized and resorted to violence in an attempt to overthrow the Islamic social and political order. (p. 305)
That is certainly no description of al-Qaida or affiliated groups, who seek to enforce an Islamic social and political order. There is apparently no justification in Islamic jurisprudence for applying the term and/or punishments of hiraba when the violence is directed at non-Muslim governments, societies or individuals. At least Jackson provides no references along those lines.

At this point, it is difficult, if not impossible, to see how the use of hiraba for jihad or terrorism is warranted in any current contemporary situation relevant to the US. But there are further difficulties with Jackson's analysis. He defines hiraba as follows:
...these jurists confirm that hirabah is distinguished by its connection to the spreading of fear (ikhafah) and helplessness (àdam al-ghawth) and the fact that no effective security measures can be taken against it (taàdhdhur al-ihtiraz). (p. 296)
The difficulty here is that there are several Quranic authorizations that call for instilling terror and fear into the heart of the enemy (8:60, et al.). And in his authoritative treatment of jihad, Pakistani Brigadier General S.K. Malik in his book, The Quranic Concept of War, notes the critical element of fear and terror in waging jihad:
In war our main objective is the opponent's heart or soul, our main weapon of offence against this objective is the strength of our own souls, and to launch such an attack, we have to keep terror away from our own hearts.... Terror struck into the hearts of the enemies is not only a means, it is the end itself. Once a condition of terror into the opponent's heart is obtained, hardly anything is left to be achieved. It is the point where the means and the end meet and merge. Terror is not a means of imposing decision on the enemy; it is the decision we wish to impose on him. ([Delhi, 1992], p. 59; emphasis added)
Malik explains that the very elements that Jackson wants to attribute to the concept of hiraba, fear and helplessness, are integral to the Islamic doctrine of jihad itself. (LTC Joseph Myers examines Malik's explanation of Islamic war doctrine in his review article published in the Winter 2006-2007 edition of Parameters: The US Army War College Quarterly.)

The effort by Jim Guirard and others in the "truespeak" movement to attempt to use the Islamic lexicon against international Islamic terrorism is certainly commendable. But as we see with Sherman Jackson's own treatment of hiraba, the attempt is wide off the mark. Our enemies are no doubt amused at our attempts to appear informed on matters of Islamic law, but this erroneous exegesis is hardly the tool to strike the fear of eternal damnation into the hearts of Osama bin Laden and his followers, as Guirard has claimed for his "truespeak".

And as Walid Phares and Stephen Coughlin have already revealed, many of the Western Muslim advocates of this new approach are directly tied to known Muslim Brotherhood front groups operating in the US. As Coughlin itemizes, Sherman Jackson is a "trustee" to the North American Islamic Trust, and affiliated with the Islamic Society of North America and the Muslim Student Association, the first two of which were named as unindicted co-conspirators in the current Holy Land Foundation terror financing federal trial underway in Dallas, and the last was the original organizational wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in America. The hiraba-jihad terminology has also been endorsed by the Wahhabist Council for Islamic Education and the extremist mouthpiece Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), also named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation trial. That is telling in and of itself.

Walid Phares' warning is appropriate:
Thus the promoters of this theory of Hiraba and Mufsidoon are representing the views of classical Wahabis and the Muslim Brotherhood in their criticism of the "great leap forward" made by bin Laden. But by convincing Westerners that al Qaeda and its allies are not the real jihadists but some renegades, the advocates of this school would be causing the vision of Western defense to become blurred again so that more time could be gained by a larger, more powerful wave of Jihadism that is biding its time to strike when it chooses, under a coherent international leadership.
This new "truespeak" lexicon is not a new tool to engage terrorists groups like Al-Qaeda, but rather as Phares states, an obstacle "preventing the West from understanding jihad". The "truespeak" movement would be much more appropriate for a Madison Avenue advertising campaign, not a Global War on Terror. Given the apparent success "truespeak" and its adherents have had to date with regular briefings to senior military and policy audiences, that alone seems an indicator of a leadership unstudied and unprepared for the nuances of the terrorist doctrines opposing us.

Six years after 9/11, it is long past time for scholars in diplomatic, military, intelligence and academic circles to get a better grip on the threat we are confronting in the West and around the world. Analysts like Phares and Coughlin have already laid out a path for us to follow and the real war of ideas that needs to be waged.

Patrick Poole is an occasional contributor to American Thinker. He is the Executive Director of Central Ohioans Against Terrorism,  and he maintains a blog, Existential Space.